Jo Bourne’s Spymaster Series

[asa book]0425219607[/asa] You know better than to judge a book by its cover, right?

It seems to me that it has been a long time since I came across a new historical romance series that really caught my attention. It’s always wonderful to find an author who can tell a story, knows the historical period, and writes beautifully.

Jo Bourne‘s Spymaster series starts with The Spymaster’s Lady, a novel set in Napoleonic France and England.

The story centers on a young French woman (Annique) who has grown up as part of a small community of elite spies. Both her parents, all the adults in her life, live the Game (as they call what they do).  Her own career began at the tender age of ten, when her mother sent her into dangerous situations dressed as a boy. Annique  is very good at what she does. Her character is intelligent and witty and contemplative; she is also  deeply insecure and frightened when the story opens, and with good cause. She has recently lost her mother and she’s been captured by another French spy, senior to her, who has reason to wish her ill.

Annique is immediately intriguing, for her personal history and the terrible burden of secrets she carries, secrets that will cost (or save) many innocent lives. Napoleon is planning on invading England, and she has seen the document that outlines that plan in detail. When the novel opens Annique has already begun to doubt her commitment to Napoleon’s cause.  She says of him: “It is Napoleon’s passion to conquer, not to rule. There will be no peace.”

So we meet Annique when she has been locked away in the cellar of the senior spy who wishes her dead. Also there are two British spies, one of whom is badly injured. The three of them join forces to escape and then  to evade capture as they flee toward England.

I don’t want to give more away, because the plot is complex and quite cleverly put together. I will say that all of the secondary characters are carefully drawn and many of them just as interesting as the primary couple. I found myself hoping that there would be novels dedicated to a number of them.

Bourne writes beautifully. Her style is clean and still prosaic, and her dialog is pitch perfect. I am just about to start the second novel in the series; in fact, it will be what distracts me on the trip home, later today.

Academic conference & romance

After so many years in academia and dozens of conferences, finally there’s one I would have liked to go to, but missed. There’s an article on the Huffington Post about a conference at Princeton in which the topic of discussion was the current state of the romance genre.

According to the article, Professor Sally Goede talked about  the Into the Wilderness series. This is fantastic of course, and I’m very pleased. I wish they hadn’t misspelled Sara’s name in the article, but hey.

The really amusing thing here is that academic annual conferences — the MLA, for example — is a hotbed for romance of all kinds. Except the fictional.

An excerpt from Rendell’s piece for the HuffPo:

Romances offer very different things to very different readers, therefore, and to lump the genre and its audience together is short-sighted – and problematic. This point was driven home to me during Professor Emily Haddad’s paper about the depiction of the Middle East in romances featuring sheikhs. Haddad drew on Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism which describes the way the West constructs and “others” the East through its writings and discourses. For too long, romance has been the “East” and “other” of the literary world: talked about in generalities, pigeonholed, and not understood for its nuances and variety.

I may not have gotten my answer for why romance is selling so well in our troubled times, but the Princeton conference taught me that to rush to conclusions about romance fiction is to flatten out a rich, varied, and continually evolving genre. In the end, though, I did conclude one thing. People read and enjoy romance just as people deal with hard economic times: differently.

If his Kiss is Wicked – Jo Goodman – review

[asa book]0821777777[/asa] First, let me remind you that authors often cannot have the title they want, because the marketing people don’t like it. My guess is that Goodman didn’t start with this title, which some will find offputting. I have read other novels she’s written, and I knew better than to judge her by title (or cover).

I have a weakness for Regency romances and a keen interest in how the time and place are portrayed. I also value writers who work to avoid the tried-and-true. Goodman knows her historical detail, and she’s not content to make due do with the standard conflicts. In many romances the range of conflict is very narrow. He’s tortured by his personal history and can’t commit; she’s secretive about her past and needs to be wooed free of her fears. The crisis very often has to do with miscommunication of an overly simplistic variety.

Goodman’s main characters aren’t having any of that. They are two interesting, sensible people who come together after she is abducted and beaten (but not raped, which would have turned this into an entirely different story). Her fears are real ones, and he takes them seriously. There is nothing coy about the way they fall in love or decide to marry. The problems all stem from the original premise — Emma was abducted and beaten, but persons unknown, for reasons unknown, and she is suffering — and will continue to suffer — post traumatic stress until they can figure out what actually happened. When this impacts on their life together, he doesn’t throw a hissy fit and retreat. He doubles down on his intent to figure out what happened.

There are lots of suspects, some of which appear to be stock-character bad-guys, but then this evolves into something else, too.

I have given you almost nothing about the greater context of the story, and that’s on purpose. The bottom line: this is an intriguing story wound around a very satisfying romance, rather than a romance wrapped in a thin layer of mystery. A grown-up romance. A really good story, well plotted and written. Highly recommended.

Pajama Girls and the Evolution of Romance Fiction

I hope you haven’t forgot about Pajama Girls, who are in limbo until the trade paper edition comes out early next year. Lynn, Southerner that she is, has kept an eye out and found an interesting review by Mary Beachum in Augusta Magazine. It’s one of those reviews that starts out a little wobbly — I’m not sure if I’m being panned or not — and then turns toward the positive. You may think I’m odd for saying this, but I almost prefer this kind of review to a no-holds-barred love-it review. There’s some of the reviewer’s personality here, and some real thought.

Funny (and quite accurate, in my opinion) is Ms Beachum’s take on the evolution of romance fiction:

Once upon a time, the pattern of a romantic novel was predictable. Man and woman meet, in some cute way. Despite setbacks, they develop feelings for each other. Then they overcome a major obstacle, declare their love, fall into each other’s arms and are swept away by passion. Well, that is just so 20th century. Today man and woman meet, in some cute way. They decide to indulge in some recreational sex, discover a few common interests and are dismayed to find that they are developing emotional entanglements. After a dance of “on again and off again,” they reluctantly admit that they are in love and walk hand-in-hand into the sunset.